Captain Narrowbelt and the Royal Sea Fleet
A good day for Captain Narrowbelt began with a bottle of rum and a battle plan.
Nothing happened in Port Narrow without him hearing about it, so in the last few days he had heard more and more often that sailors from the ships anchored in Port Narrow had heard something about an unscheduled departure of the royal fleet. Unfortunately, however, they had no more detailed information, the action seemed to run under great secrecy.
So Captain Narrowbelt decided to pay a long overdue visit to his old companion Irontooth.
Near his ship berth was a small, nondescript tavern.
Its logo was a steel tooth that served as a rum jug.
Like every tavern in the rum-smuggling port of Port Narrow, this one held a wide selection of the finest rums for its patrons. Booty from all seven seas, both New and Old World. But that didn’t stop Narrowbelt from entering with his own bottle, as usual. So, gripping the bottle tightly by the neck with his fist, he vigorously opened the old, squeaky wooden door.
Every time Narrowbelt entered a room, there was silence for a few seconds. He was a feared pirate among pirates and a hated man among everyone else.
“Ay Captain,” Irontooth looked up at him. He was in the process of smudging the rum puddles on the planks that were his bar into new puddles with a dirty rag, which he did well as usual. “What brings you here?”
Irontooth was also a pirate, but the age of his bones was getting to him and so he had decided to leave being a pirate to the younger ones. A few years ago he had hung up his hat and subsequently built a tavern around that nail.
The bond of friendship with Narrowbelt, however, only grew stronger as a result.
“You’re here all day, and people are talking…”. Narrowbelt leaned over the counter to speak more quietly. “My friend, have you heard anything about the Royal Sea Fleet? Any kind of information would be appreciated.”
“No, Captain, I know less than you, the people here don’t really talk about the Crown’s fleet. What do you have to do with them?”
“The last time I was out at sea, we happened to bump into a royal ship. They started taunting us and shooting at us for fun, calling us names, you know how they are,” Narrowbelt replied. “I’ll teach them a lesson.”
“Why didn’t you shoot back, Captain?” asked Irontooth.
“Oh, I did, but I’m still pissed, I want to teach them a lesson and taunt them as well. If you hear even one of these men here say anything about the Royal Fleet, seek me out!”. Narrowbelt glared urgently at Irontooth, rose from his stool, and walked toward the exit. The old wooden door in one hand, his rum bottle in the other, he turned to Irontooth once more as he walked, nodded silently at him, and grasped the brim of his hat with his hand in salute. Irontooth nodded silently back and returned his attention to the puddles on his counter. The wooden door closed with a loud squeak and slowly the conversations at the tables grew louder again.
Narrowbelt kept asking around the harbor, but no one knew much about the royal fleet. Pirates didn’t talk much about them, knowing there wasn’t much chance of robbing the Crown’s fleet, but he kept asking and didn’t give up hope.
As night fell over Port Narrow, he went back to the tavern.
“Captain, I was just about to send for you. We have someone who could give you good information,” Irontooth called out.
They went into the cellar. There, with his hands chained high to a wooden beam on the ceiling, stood a young man.
It smelled disgusting. The boy was naked and dirty. Water dripped down from him onto the muddy, slippery basement floor. Again and again he let himself and his lean body fall exhausted into the chains. Irontooth took the rag he had used earlier to spread one of the puddles on his counter from his shoulder and wiped the man’s face.
“He’s from the royal seamanship. Some of our boys found him on a patrol in the waters. One of their ships sank, he survived, so they brought him here,” Irontooth explained.
“Do you know where you are, boy?” asked Narrowbelt.
“On some secret island. At least that’s what they told me,” the man replied weakly.
“I really hope his eyes were covered until he got here! How far was he from here when they found him?” the captain asked.
“Of course, sir, he was very far away, and was unconscious besides,” said Irontooth, “Come, lad, tell the captain about the Royal Naval Fleet and the transport you told me about.”
“Is there a transport?” asked the captain.
“Yes, the Queen’s wedding is coming up. The Royal Sea Fleet will pick up the highest quality fruit, from the annual grape harvest, and transport it to the wedding. Or so the rumors say.”
Captain Narrowbelt started laughing, kissed the man on the forehead and asked him to continue.
“They’re taking her from Pearl Island. They leave tomorrow, and it will take about a month to get there. I know they will only stay there one day to load and then leave again for the palace.”
Pearl Island, that was the common name among sailors for the island of Piscari, which was long on the other side of the great continent. It had received its nickname because of a special grape that grew only on this island and that had been very popular with the Crown for generations. This exceedingly rare grape grew on huge trees that were larger than any other leafy plants ever seen. The trees grew near the cliffs of Piscari and their fruits hung like neatly strung pearls, on meter-long panicles down the steep slopes.
Every year, at the behest of Her Majesty, the royal fleet went out to harvest these incomparably sweet and rich grapes.
The island was not far beyond the exit of an artificial canal that had been created centuries ago to connect the new and old oceans.
“To the pearl island? That would take about two months, right?”
“Irontooth, we have time to prepare. We need to fully repair the ship, find a good and trustworthy crew, and get some weapons.”
The captain walked up a few steps, stopped halfway up and turned around.
“Thank you, young man.” He nodded to the man with a serious face.
“You can untie him Irontooth, he could never find out where we are. Make sure no one talks to him. Keep him in the tavern. Keep an eye on him.”
Narrowbelt felt happier than he had in a long time, but he still had a lot of work ahead of him that would demand his full attention.
He began working on his ship, the M.S. Kasilly, with three other pirates who, like him, were skilled shipbuilders.
“Sir, I was thinking we could put in some secret storerooms. You could hide weapons or rum or both there,” one of the pirates said.
“That’s not a bad idea. I’d like to have a secret room here on the dock for ammunition and another in my room for rum,” the captain replied with a laugh. He liked the initiative and resourcefulness of his men.
They repaired everything on the ship. They added compartments and organized everything so that the stolen fruits could be brought safely to the island.
The whole repair took almost a month. During the last week, they repainted the ship.
“It’s almost perfect,” Narrowbelt said, looking at the Kasilly.
“Why ‘almost,’ sir, what’s missing?” asked one of the three shipbuilders.
“The fruit, it’s missing the ripe red fruit! What I would give to see the Queen’s face!” guffawed Narrwobelt, laughing.
In good spirits, the four went to the tavern to celebrate the completion of the ship.
“Boy, bring us rum,” called the captain. “The ship is ready,” Narrowbelt turned to Irontooth with promise.
“I can’t wait to see it, Captain. I’m sure it’s magnificent.”
The young man arrived with four pitchers of rum. He looked down at the ground most of the time, only to lift his eyes briefly in between, smiling uncertainly from ear to ear each time.
“You don’t have to smile when you see me, boy. I don’t want or need people to like me,” the captain said, turning away from him again.
The man nodded, turned and walked to one of the back rooms.
“Come back here,” Narrowbelt called out. “If I’ve done my math right, the Royal Fleet should be near Bearded Island by now, right?”
“Yes, sir, it’s probably only a few days away.”
“I’m in the process of putting together a good crew. Do you want to join?”
The young man looked amazed and this time his smile was genuine, “Of course, sir!”.
“Promise me you won’t switch sides when you see your people.”
“I swear sir, they left me behind when I was doomed, I don’t owe them anything anymore!”
“Irontooth, are you coming?” the captain asked.
“I was beginning to think you would never ask. It would be my pleasure, my captain.”
“So: I, this man,” Narrowbelt interrupted himself, “What’s your name, anyway, my boy?”
“Daniel, my name is Daniel, sir,” the young man replied.
“So me, Daniel, Irontooth, and my three shipbuilders. That makes 6 people, we need about 14 more,” the captain calculated.
For the next month, Narrowbelt watched every ship that came to the island. He inquired about any pirates he saw. He spent a lot of time in the tavern, listening to the stories of others and trying to find out who was brave enough to come with him to strengthen his crew.
He didn’t have much time left, and he only had 19 men together so far.
“Let’s take 19, captain,” Irontooth said. “You have at your disposal 100 P.N.X. men, all loyal to you. Why aren’t 19 additional men enough for you?”
“First, I love recruiting people, convincing them to join me. Second, I plan to start with not one, but 4 ships and 30 men each. So I need exactly 20, not 19 more men,” he replied briskly, looking at Irontooth with a look that brooked no argument.
“You could ask Christopher, sir.”
“He’s too old.”
“He and I are the same age. I’m sure he would love to have one last adventure with you,” Irontooth said. “If he’s too old, so am I, Captain,” he added.
“Bring him here tomorrow,” Captain Narrowbelt nodded, pushing his empty rum jug thoughtfully through one of the puddles on the damp countertop plank.
For the first time in nearly two months, the captain slept well, and that despite the fact that what should have been the hard part of the plan was coming in a few hours.
Morning dawned, and Narrowbelt headed straight to the tavern, where he had arranged to meet Christopher and a full tankard of rum.
The captain and Christopher had a common past that united them. The old man was one of the first to trust Narrowbelt as captain and he followed him everywhere ever since, no questions asked. Christopher was the perfect pirate and had always done his job perfectly, but he had grown older and so he no longer took the same pleasure in robbing.
“Hello, sir,” Narrowbelt said, taking a seat next to Christopher.
“Hello, Captain,” Christopher nodded with a smile in greeting. “Irontooth told me that you needed me for an adventure?”
“Yes, indeed. I plan to steal from the Royal Maritime Fleet and teach them a lesson. They are apparently transporting the annual grape harvest earlier than usual to deliver it to the Queen in time for the upcoming wedding celebration. It happens in about a week.”
“What’s gotten into you?” it escaped Christopher. The captain looked at him calmly and penetratingly. There weren’t many people who dared to speak to him like that, and he appreciated Christopher for not asking many questions. Slowly, he took a deep sip from his mug and, his gaze always focused on the mug, placed it thoughtfully on the bar’s plank.
“The years haven’t failed to leave their mark on Christopher either,” Narrowbelt mused, nodding to himself.
When the jug finally found its place in one of the puddles, he clicked his tongue, turned to Christopher, and put a hand on his shoulder.
“To be honest,” the captain smiled, “I’m vengeful and also bored, and those two things don’t go well together. What do you say to that? Will you come?”
“I’d love to, Captain.” Christopher placed his hand clenched into a fist on his chest, nodding reverently and gravely at the captain.
The crew was finally complete.
In his imagination, Narrowbelt could already see himself drinking rum and eating the royal harvest of grapes with relish, sitting on the beach and enjoying the sunset.
The next day, he began stocking the Kasilly with weapons and getting her ready for sea. When everything was to his satisfaction, he stood on the upper deck and, with a jug of rum in his hand, thoughtfully contemplated his four ships and his 120-man pirate fleet.
“We start tomorrow and sail so that we cross the route of the royal fleet. We don’t know exactly when they will pass there, so we launch and wait at sea,” the captain shouted.
“How long can it take?” asked a member of the crew.
“It could be a day, a week or more. We have to keep in mind that we don’t know if there were any complications on the way there or back. We also don’t know if the wind was favorable for the fleet. Tomorrow morning we will load the ship with food and drinks, enough for a week”.
Already at 4 o’clock in the morning, bottle by bottle, the drinks were loaded onto the ship. Then followed the food for 120 men. The ship looked like a royal tavern.
Fully loaded and armed to the teeth, the fleet, with the M.S. Kasilly at its head, set out for the place where Narrowbelt suspected they would soon cross the royal fleet.
Until then, patience was the order of the day.
The sea was calm, the waves barely visible. From time to time, they beat shallowly with a gurgling sound against one or the other ship’s side. Above them, a few seagulls circled, hoping for scraps of food and already seeming to fight over it in the air. Within sight, between the ships and the horizon, isolated dolphins kept appearing, rising from the water with a small fountain, only to disappear right back under the water with a short creaking sound, in a short arc.
“It’s been two days, sir,” said one crew member.
“Not ‘already,’ but ‘just.’ It’s only been two days,” the captain replied. “Be patient, son!”
Narrowbelt was quiet, introverted. He waited patiently, not even saying a word. Thoughtfully, he walked periodically about his ship to look deeply into the eyes of all the members of his crew. They lowered their eyes when he came, but nodded respectfully at him.
Hourly he looked at his man in the lookout above the main mast. He returned his gaze and shook his head quietly. The sun was burning. The gulls were screaming.
Suddenly, on the third day, something had caught the scout’s attention. A short time later, the royal fleet appeared on the horizon.
The signal sounded. The plan took its course.
“I need ten men to jump into the sea,” Narrowbelt gradually pointed to ten of his men, who formed a semicircle around him, man by man. “You’ll stay underwater most of the time,” he spoke to them as he eyed each of them carefully in turn. “When the ships are close enough, I will shoot, that is the signal to board”. Meanwhile, we take the fleet under fire from two sides. But remember, we don’t kill all of them. We need witnesses to our victory!”
Captain Narrowbelt looked thoughtfully for a few seconds at the fleet looming before them. It seemed like he was completely replaying the entire battle once in his head.
“After the boarding, you take the royal ships and bring them closer to ours, as close as you can. Then we’ll throw some wooden gangplanks, they’re long enough to connect the ships, and start moving the barrels.”
Narrowbelt’s ten-man boarding party broke the semicircle and they jumped into the water. Everyone waited for the royal ships, which quickly approached them.
Of course, the pirate fleet had long since been spotted by them. Loud bells rang out. They were calling for the royal crew to get ready to fight. You heard loud orders and thunderous battle cries.
When the first man of Narrowbelt climbed onto a ship, everything went crazy. It didn’t take long for both fleets to form a jumbled mess of cannon shots, men screaming with battle lust, scattered shots from elaborately stuffed rifles and singing metal, the knives and sabers clashing in battle.
It was a roaring cauldron, a kind of bloodlust mixed with adrenaline, fighting spirit and crazy feelings of happiness.
As much as the crowd and the men fighting each other raged, Captain Narrowbelt stood at the helm of his ship, kept the overview and directed his men bit by bit to victory.
At some point, the shouts became quieter, more sporadic, and the shots rarer. The plan had worked. The wooden planks connected their own ships with those of the enemy.
Narrowbelt took two big steps on the wood, and stood on the royal flagship.
He turned to the captain of the opposing ship, and with a saber to his neck, demanded that he hand over to them the cargo, the queen’s grape harvest.
“Why? They are not ours, they are for the royal wedding,” a weeping man cried pleadingly.
Narrowbelt turned to the distraught man. “You mocked me, you and your royal highly decorated fleet. I have hated it. No one dares to parade me, Captain Narrowbelt, or they pay the price.”
Narrowbelt let go of the man and looked around. He opened one of the captured barrels, removed a fruit, and demonstratively bit into it with relish in full view of the man. But, biting the fruit only halfway, Narrowbelt bristled and paused with a questioning face:
“What the hell? Why does it taste like that? This fruit doesn’t contain juice, it’s filled with alcohol, with rum!”
He started taking the fruits out of the barrel one by one and throwing them on the ground. After about 30 fruits, he had certainty. Triumphantly, he turned to the entire fleet and shouted in a firm voice, “The barrels are not filled with fruit, they are just covering the actual contents. In our plan to disrupt the Queen’s grape harvest, we have stumbled upon a veritable goldmine. To liquid gold: the barrels are all filled with the finest rum, wedding rum, I suppose!”
“Rum,” he directed his words to the captain of the royal fleet, shaking his head and laughing. “Who would have thought you would pay such a price for your impudence…!”.
A few hours later, Captain Narrowbelt let his gaze wander over his ships, loaded to the top with the finest rum, nodded with satisfaction, and ordered his men to retreat.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” he called out in farewell to the remaining royal ship. “Otherwise we’ll get you all in the end. We’re the good guys, and because we are, we’ll leave you something to go home with: Your heads.”
All the way back toward his island and Port Narrow, Narrowbelt stood at his helm and, holding in his hand a tankard of the new fine rum, looked loftily about among the ships and his crew.
“You did it,” he murmured with satisfaction.
“You did it, P.N.X.,” he silently nodded a toast to each of his 100 men.
They sailed on toward the island, their ships loaded with rum. “The queen’s entire rum,” Narrowbelt triumphed. “All of her majesty’s wedding drink.” He laughed with satisfaction. What had begun as a near-simple fruit theft had unexpectedly turned into one of the greatest lessons for the royal fleet. “All her rum!”
But he was wrong in his assumption: what he didn’t realize was that he hadn’t captured all the barrels. While Narrowbelt and his fleet were sailing victoriously toward Port Narrow, four inconspicuous barrels, printed with the words “Grape Harvest,” floated out to sea unobserved by all.